Childhood around the world

In Denmark, children are bundled up to sleep outside under shelter in winter.
In Denmark, children are bundled up to sleep outside under shelter in winter. Photo:

We often refer to ‘childhood’ as if it is a singular thing which is the same the world over. It can be easy to assume our ideas around routines, family, clothes, food and play for children are universal, but in fact they are particular to where we live.

Childhood in Copenhagen

Sydney mum Carolyn says life for her two children has changed markedly since moving to Copenhagen earlier this year. “Children here are raised much more freely [than in Australia],” Carolyn says, who shifted to Denmark due to her husband’s employment.

It’s common for Japanese families to sleep in one room until the children are primary-school aged.
It’s common for Japanese families to sleep in one room until the children are primary-school aged. Photo: Getty Images

In Denmark, children don’t go to school until they’re seven years old, and there is no pressure on them to learn to read until this time. “Any time I have asked about learning the alphabet, numbers or phonics, people at the school say to me, ‘But play is very important. At no other time can children have no pressure or worries. All they have to do is play’.”

Carolyn says this attitude pervades Danish views on childhood in general, as through play children learn to pursue their creative ideas, negotiate rules and boundaries and solve problems.

Carolyn was initially surprised at the risks children in Copenhagen seemed to be exposed to. “The playgrounds here are like those of old,” she says. “Slippery dips you can fall off, roundabouts you can clock yourself on and children play with toy guns and wooden swords. That said, I have seldom seen a child get hurt. They learn to climb high up in the trees and on roofs, and get down again from a young age.

“I once asked a teacher at my daughter’s kindergarten about it and she said, ‘How do you expect them to learn if they don’t experience what’s achievable? They have to fall so next time they know how to do it’.”

With averages of only two hours of sunshine per day in winter, you might expect babies in Copenhagen to spend most of their time indoors from November to February. But what happens is quite the opposite, says Carolyn. “While they attend nursery [until they are three years old], all the children sleep outside under a shelter,” says Carolyn. “The children have special cots that are fur trimmed and the staff wrap the kids up in a doona to sleep, regardless of whether it’s snowing or not.” It’s also not uncommon to see children bundled up outside a cafe in a pram taking a nap while their parents are inside eating.

Carolyn has also found the lack of “pester power” to be refreshing. “One thing I’ve noticed is how advertising is driving our choices to buy in Australia, such as character toys, DVDs and dress ups,” she says. “Denmark has none of this. Not even toys from movies coming out. Often toys are soldiers, dolls or puzzles but without a particular brand. There is no advertising directed at children.” Fast food marketed at children, Carolyn says, is virtually non-existent.


When she returns to Australia Carolyn hopes to “hold onto much of these natural parenting ways.” Mostly, she says, she is optimistic that her children will take on the Danish view of life and don’t become worried about the labels attached to what they wear, eat or play with.  In the end, Carolyn says, “It’s better to worry about who you are, not what you have.”

Bare bottoms in China

Once a baby reaches about six months of age, many Chinese families put them in kaidangkucrotch-less pants. Parents learn to watch the signals their baby gives when they need to urinate or defecate, and then parents make a sound (usually ‘sssss’) at the same time. Children then learn to associate the sound with their bodily functions and most are toilet trained at a very young age.

All in together

In Japan it’s common for families to sleep in one room until the children are primary-school aged. Lisa, who went on exchange to Japan, says her eight-year-old host brother was in ‘transition’ where he had a bed in his parents room and his own room, and could choose where he slept.

The best dads in the world

The Aka Pygmy dads from the Congo in Central Africa were named “the best dads in the world” by Fathers Direct, an organisation that studies fatherhood around the world. According to the study, Aka Pygmy dads are within reach of their infants 47 per cent of the time, and even suckled their babies.

Counting blessings

Australian mother Kirsty has lived in many different countries throughout the world, and now lives with her husband and four children in Doha, Qatar. Kirsty has been routinely approached by strangers and congratulated on her blessings. “We were seen as incredibly lucky to have four healthy children,” she says. “The reaction was similar to as if we’d won the lottery.”

“While I’ve had plenty of Australian friends and passers-by comment, saying, ‘Gee you’ve got your hands full,’ I don’t think culturally we look at big families and consider them as having struck gold like they do here.”

If the shoe fits

When she was living in Chile, Aussie mum Lilani found that her child’s bare feet in a pram always stopped strangers. “In Chile children wear shoes no matter how young,” she says. “Random people would stop and squeeze my child’s bare fat feet waving from the pram in summer.”